"I went to college to give football a shot. I figured if I ever was going to be someone in this world, football was by best chance ." -- Cliff Stoudt
Football has given Cliff Stoudt highly unusual -- possibly, even unique -- distinction, although hardly what he had in mind during his childhood fantasies.
Only devoted Pittsburgh Steeler fans and anyone excited by the quirks of sport are familiar with Stoudt and the remarkable streak he carries into Super Bowl 14 in Pasadena Sunday, that he is a man who very likely will qualify for an NFL pension without ever playing a second in the NFL.
Stoudt is an understudy's understudy, the third-string quarterback for the defending Super Bowl champs. Which means that his game action understandably would be limited.But not even one snap from center in three seasons? Surely, there must have been times the dominating Steelers could have trusted him for at least one play.
In truth, there was. In his rookie year, both Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek were injured during the same game. Unfortunately for Stoudt, he was on the inactive roster that one game and safety Tony Dungy became the emergency quarterback.
"So you see," Stoudt was saying, "there are defensive backs in this league who have played more quarterback than I have."
Stoudt was laughing. He is a rangy man with a wonderful perspective on his lot in life, although folks who work for a living would be hard put to sympathize with his problem. After all, Stoudt has been rewarded handsomely for not playing.
For simply twiddling his toes on the sidelines during six playoff games, for jotting notes on a clipboard that Bradshaw pays scant attention to, Stoudt has been paid (earned just doesn't seem appropriate) $51,000. That will increase either by $9,000 or $18,000 by dusk Sunday.
"Probably, it'll be 53 straight games I won't play," he said. "I imagine he (Coach Chuck Noll) will go with Terry again. Of course, something always can happen. But for 52 games, nothing has."
Stoudt has a keen sense of the irony that smacks him now and then.He volunteers the fact that if his status fails to improve next year, his fourth, he yet will quality for a pension.
Length of service in the league, not on the field, is the criterion for a pension, although it is supposed to be a much-needed salve for the NFL bruises that inevitably become worse later in life. Here Stoudt becomes both funny and frustrated.
"I'd love to get a bruise, just one," he said. "That's what I miss, being sore and bruised after a game and saying: "Well, we won, so the other guys must be hurting even more.' I wish I'd get knocked out sometime, see stars, just for a few seconds.
"It's tough to make jokes about this but it's the only way to keep your sanity."
Why Stoudt must keep a stout heart is that he has worked as hard as anyone to become a success in his chosen profession -- and might well be denied the chance to show his skills. Bradshaw is just 31 and the well-entrenched No. 2, Kruczek, is 26 to Stoudt's 24.
As third-string quarterback, Stoudt's practice chores include simulating the quarterback the Steeler defense will face each week. Since 1977, he has been Rober Staubach, Bert Jonse, Ken Stabler and ever so many other fine passers. This week, he plays Vince Ferragamo, a former scrub turned starting Super Bowl quarterback.
"I can play this game," he insists. "I see lots of starting quarterbacks in this league who couldn't make our team, so it's frustrating for me. I'm not playing and theyRe starting, just because they're in the right place at the right time.
"Of course, I could go and start for a team and get kicked Sunday after Sunday. And here I'm learning on the best team in football. When I learn, I might move in at the top. There's a reason I'm still on the team for I'm not related to Chuck Noll. Only he knows what it is, but he knows what he's doing."
Stoudt has shared some of the perks, although leftover ones, with teammates who pop into our lives on commercial after commercial. If you happen by Tennessee, Stoudt may be heard pitching a record album: "Famous Country and Western Beer-Drinking Songs."
Also, he is part of a fictitious Super Bowl package this week, a spoof by a Pittsburgh radio station that advertises a trip here for some sinfully low price and includes a stopover in Las Vegas.
Part of the Vegas deal, the Popular Polish Peoples to Pasadena Tour says, is a chance to have Stoudt present them autographed copies of the book: "How to Watch Pro Football."
"Guess I'd better get ready to hop over to that Tropicana parking lot," Stoudt said.
Stoudt was a fifth-round draft choice after breaking the total-offense record that Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski set at Youngstown State. But the best compliment Steeler public relations officials could find for Stoudt for his press biography was: "Had a very impressive preseason last summer . . . played in three games and completed 21 to 35 passes for one TD. . ."
"Chuck just doesn't believe in taking out his starters when he gets a pretty good lead," Stoudt said. "He believes in the domino theory. He likes to keep the momentum going. I'd just like to get momentum going.
"Everybody dreams. My big one is Monday morning when the paper comes out and you've made that kind of contribution." He was referring to Bradshaw's throwing four touchdown passes in Pittsburgh's Super Bowl victory over Dallas last year. "I try to be patient.
"The worst time was not getting in against the Redskins this season. We got on 'em early, and Terry got hurt so Mike played most of the second half, till the end. I must be one hell of a quarterback if he (Noll) thinks I can blow a 31-point lead in a minute or so.
"I want to be part of the team. For instance, we were having some beers the other day and the guys were talking about their game experiences. What was I supposed to do, say: 'Hey, remember that pass I threw Wednesday in practice'?
"But they kid me, and I'm glad. It'd be easy to look down on me, but they understand the situation. Maybe if something good happens Sunday, I'll put myself in. Maybe at end."
There is one other dream that fills Stoudt's mind frequently. He is quite good at golf, having once beaten Lee Trevino in a long-driving contest, and can stare at ceilings and see himself wining the U.S. Open.
He can see himself winning by such a large margin, in fact, that there is a moment, perhaps on the 18th fairway, when he notices a large man with thinning, blond hair in the gallery. He yells to him, "Hey, Terry. Bradshaw. Come on in here and hit one of these shots for me."